Hillary Clinton is on the defensive on foreign policy for the first time in the Democratic primary.

Clinton is a forceful presence on foreign policy and very good at defending her record as secretary of state, as she proved during the Benghazi hearing. But for the first time in this election season, she’s being challenged by Democrats on foreign policy. That’s a very different dynamic than the Benghazi hearing, where the Republican focus on esoteric conspiracy theories made her look good. Against Sanders and O’Malley, she’s having to to defend something larger: her foreign policy vision, which led her to support the Iraq War and later made her a strong advocate for intervention in Libya and Syria. Sanders made a palpable hit by noting the problem with regime change as a policy goal. There are strong echoes here of Obama’s successful challenge of Hillary Clinton in 2008, where sharp differences in foreign policy visions defined the characters. 

February 16, 2018

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Mitt Romney won’t be calling Donald Trump a “phony” and a “fraud” any time soon.

On Friday morning, Romney made it official: He’s running to replace Orrin Hatch as Utah’s senator.

Romney’s biggest weakness is that he’s not really from Utah. He grew up in Michigan, and while he did attend Brigham Young University in Provo, he spent most of his professional life in Massachusetts, where he served as governor from 2003-2007.

The state’s GOP chairman blasted Romney on these grounds, saying on Thursday that Romney is “essentially doing what Hillary Clinton did in New York” when she ran for Senate in 2000. “I think he’s keeping out candidates that I think would be a better fit for Utah because, let’s face it, Mitt Romney doesn’t live here, his kids weren’t born here, he doesn’t shop here.” The two-minute video accompanying Romney’s announcement makes it clear that his campaign takes that weakness seriously: The words “Utah” and “Utahans” appear a dozen times, and it focuses on Romney’s work as CEO of the organizing committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

But there is still a national message in the ad, and in Romney’s campaign. “I think it will be very much a Utah-centric campaign,” longtime Romney ally Derek Miller told The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins. “[Romney] wants the country to look at Utah as an example. Why are things going so well here? … What lessons are there to learn, and how do you take them back to the nation’s capital?” In the ad, Romney uses Utah as a model for the country: The people are decent, hard-working, and frugal.

This is being held up as a subtle, anti-Trump message: Instead of attacking Trump, as he did during the 2016 election, Romney is embracing an implicit critique by standing up for a different kind of conservatism. But it’s also an acknowledgment that Romney’s critiques of Trump (and his overtures to him) have failed. Romney hasn’t been able to influence the president or his party, so he’s going to try to ignore Trump and run a conventional Senate campaign. The question is whether he’ll also be a conventional Republican senator—which is to say, obeisant to Trump.

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A former Playboy model says she was paid off to keep quiet about her affair with Donald Trump.

Karen McDougal told New Yorker correspondent Ronan Farrow that she had a consensual affair with Trump during his current marriage, and that she voluntarily ended it. Bolstering her account, the magazine reprinted her handwritten journal entries from the time of the affair.

The real scandal isn’t necessarily that Trump had another affair, but that a Trump ally—tabloid king David Pecker, the CEO of American Media Inc.—reportedly paid McDougal for the rights to her story. McDougal’s contract with Pecker’s company, which publishes the National Enquirer and other supermarket-aisle staples, effectively silenced her, Ronan reports:

Six former A.M.I. employees told me that Pecker routinely makes catch-and-kill arrangements like the one reached with McDougal. “We had stories and we bought them knowing full well they were never going to run,” Jerry George, a former A.M.I. senior editor who worked at the company for more than twenty-five years, told me. George said that Pecker protected Trump. “Pecker really considered him a friend,” George told me. “We never printed a word about Trump without his approval.”

McDougal told Farrow that she regrets signing the contract; American Media claims it never printed her story because it did not find her credible. But her account does resemble that of Stormy Daniels’s, the former porn star who alleges she was paid to keep quiet about her affair with Trump, and the White House’s statement is hardly a full-throated denial: “This is an old story that is just more fake news. The President says he never had a relationship with McDougal.” Emphasis mine.

February 15, 2018

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America just had its first social-media school shooting.

As a teenage boy in Florida moved through his high school murdering people on Tuesday, students posted about their experience on social media in real time. A user called Aidan Minoff tweeted, “My school is being shot up and I am locked inside. I’m fucking scared right now,” along with pictures. On NBC’s site, you can see a video taken from Snapchat of bullets being fired into a classroom while teenagers scream. (It’s very disturbing.) The alleged shooter, Nikolas Cruz, had an Instagram feed full of guns.

Social media made headlines in the wake of the terrible shooting in Las Vegas last year, when false accusations and other hoaxes spread across Twitter. Several Twitter users were revealed to have claimed they had family among the victims, although they did not. One tweet supposedly from the Florida school by a user named “Heather” has been widely reproduced online, as in this Slate piece, but its authenticity seems questionable. Twitter is always incensed by senators who offer “thoughts and prayers” to the families of victims, in between taking payments from the National Rifle Association. It’s not new for social media to react.

But citizen reportage from within school shootings, live, is new. Very real changes take place to the texture of current events when the means by which they are represented changes. Consider how the invention of personal video systems both helped to kick off and then to shape the coverage of the L.A. riots in 1992. Handheld cameras, once popularized, instantly gave citizen-filmed footage the “look” of truth. That’s why Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield are extra scary, and extra-convincing.

Watching a Snapchat video from the middle of a school shooting feels at first surreal, then very quickly normal. There’s a temptation to throw up one’s hands and bemoan the brandedness of the whole thing—every mention of Snapchat in the coverage of this shooting bolsters its corporate image. It’s not a neutral technology. Not even the phone in your camera is a neutral technology. Somebody owns it.

But we should get used to the brandedness of social-media communications. President Trump has himself transformed Twitter, from a medium for talking to one’s friends into a personal-announcement megaphone from the world’s most powerful and least impulse-controlling man. The context of the Florida shooting’s social-media posts—the fact that they’re making money for a company that also makes money from silly puppy filters, the way that the industry has been changed by Trump—lends the whole event a dystopian feel, a sense of living in an awful future that none of us could have predicted. But if personal social-media feeds give kids a voice while they’re experiencing terrible violence, that sense of increased agency cannot be an entirely negative development.

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Lift the federal ban on gun violence research.

By March 23, Congress will have to pass a bill to fund the government. In doing so, Republicans and Democrats can reverse the maddening policy that has essentially shut down research on gun violence for the last 22 years.

This is the easiest, least controversial step Congress can take in the wake of Wednesday’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 people dead. Gun control legislation certainly isn’t going anywhere—House Speaker Paul Ryan suggested as much on Thursday morning, when he said Congress needs more information on what would be an effective policy: “I think, as public policymakers, we don’t just knee-jerk before we even have all the facts and the data.”

But as things stand now, Congress will never have the facts or the data Ryan claims to need because, as the Washington Post reported in October, “Gun-control research in the United States essentially came to a standstill in 1996.”

In 1996, the Republican-majority Congress threatened to strip funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention unless it stopped funding research into firearm injuries and deaths. The National Rifle Association accused the CDC of promoting gun control. As a result, the CDC stopped funding gun-control research — which had a chilling effect far beyond the agency, drying up money for almost all public health studies of the issue nationwide.

“In the area of what works to prevent shootings, we know almost nothing,” Mark Rosenberg, who led the CDC’s gun-violence research in the 1990s, told the Post.

This policy—known as the Dickey Amendment—should not exist. Even its former champion acknowledged as much. In 2015, two years before his death, Republican Congressman Jay Dickey told HuffPost that he wished he had never put forward the policy. “I wish we had started the proper research and kept it going all this time,” he said. “I have regrets.”

If Americans had this research, Congress would have a clearer picture of what effective policy steps would be to prevent these sickeningly familiar mass shootings. As the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Yogin Kothari pointed out on Thursday, “Since 2013, there have been 290 school shootings, an average of nearly one per week. In 2018, there have been 18 school shootings in 45 days.” Then again, it’s already widely accepted that reducing gun ownership would reduce gun violence. The New York Times’ Max Fischer and Josh Keller last November addressed the question, “What Explains U.S. Mass Shootings?

Perhaps, some speculate, it is because American society is unusually violent. Or its racial divisions have frayed the bonds of society. Or its citizens lack proper mental care under a health care system that draws frequent derision abroad.

These explanations share one thing in common: Though seemingly sensible, all have been debunked by research on shootings elsewhere in the world. Instead, an ever-growing body of research consistently reaches the same conclusion.

The only variable that can explain the high rate of mass shootings in America is its astronomical number of guns.

This, perhaps, is why Republicans are opposed to federal funding of gun violence research: They know what the conclusion will be. And as long as the research is being conducted independently of the federal government, Republicans can discredit it just like they do to environmental research: by accusing it of bias, or lack of rigor, or insufficient data. If Congress does not reverse this prohibition in March, and the Republicans are to blame, it will be up to voters to punish them for it this fall.

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The Trump administration is invoking 9/11 to kill a bipartisan immigration bill.

The Senate’s most recent bipartisan immigration bill, which is being led by Republican Mike Rounds and independent Angus King, would provide a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, drastically curb family reunification, fund Trump’s border wall, and restrict ICE’s ability to deport undocumented immigrants without criminal records. It’s a compromise bill, in other words, and one that is no one’s idea of a perfect solution. Though somewhat to the left of an earlier compromise bill that was killed by the White House, some Democrats are reluctant to support the bill, given its changes to legal immigration and its funding for the wall.

But the Trump administration is proving to be the biggest roadblock for a bipartisan compromise. While the administration has suggested that it’s open to a bipartisan compromise (something that is necessary, given the Senate’s 60-vote rule), it has thus far stood in the way of anything less than total capitulation. It has also given what is, in effect, a veto to some of Congress’ most radical voices, like Senator Tom Cotton and Congressman Steve King, neither of whom are incentivized to compromise. And on Thursday, the Department of Homeland Security invoked 9/11 in stating its opposition to the bill:

DHS is upset over the amendments that would curb ICE’s power—even though there’s nothing in the bill to suggest that it would lead to millions of immigrants entering the country. Invoking 9/11 is particularly rich, given that ICE’s recent spate of deportations, which have targeted law-abiding citizens, have had nothing to do with terrorism. But it does suggest how far the administration is willing to go to kill any immigration compromise.

February 14, 2018

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Here are some of the threats that allegedly require Scott Pruitt to fly first class.

The Environmental Protection Agency administrator’s habit for taking costly first-class flights using taxpayer money has caused significant controversy over the last few days. The EPA insists Pruitt can’t fly coach for security reasons, but hasn’t elaborated. Information about why first class is safer than coach, or what kinds of threats they believe first class will protect Pruitt from, will have to be obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, an EPA spokesperson said.

But a report last month in E&E News revealed some of the threats made against Pruitt in 2017—and the cost of protecting him. Pruitt has 24/7 security detail, which “cost $832,735.40 in salary and travel expenses for his first quarter at the agency,” E&E reported. “If that spending keeps pace for Pruitt’s first year at EPA, his security detail will cost more than $2 million.”

Here are the threats cited by E&E, which obtained the information through a FOIA request:

  • An Arkansas woman sent a “threatening post” on Twitter directed partially at Pruitt. The woman later said she had been “drinking watching the Rachel Maddow show” and was sorry.
  • An Ohio man sent Pruitt an “obscene postcard” which contained no specific threat. The man later apologized.
  • About a week before Pruitt was sworn in, a woman “became loud and disorderly” in the EPA headquarters lobby. As a security officer tried to console her, she grabbed his weapon, and during a tussle she “discharged the weapon into the arm rests of the chairs.” The officer was able to retrieve the weapon and arrest her. She was later found to have a “severe mental disorder” and was ordered hospitalized.

These are not the only threats made against Pruitt or the EPA. They’re just the only ones that have been made public so far. Pruitt reportedly does get far more threats than previous EPA administrators did, and he said in October that “it’s not just me—it’s family.” The EPA won’t comment on specific threats, but perhaps it should, because it’s hard to see why taxpayers should be footing the bill for millions in security and thousands in first-class flights based on the information available.

Update: Pruitt speaks! Associated Press correspondent David Eggert reported Wednesday afternoon that the administrator said he needs to fly first class to avoid, in Eggert’s words, “unpleasant interactions with other travelers.”

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Trump’s porn-star scandal is growing.

Michael Cohen, a longtime lawyer for President Donald Trump, admitted Tuesday to The New York Times that he was behind the $130,000 payout to former porn star Stormy Daniels during the final weeks of the 2016 campaign. The source of the money had been a lingering mystery ever since The Wall Street Journal reported a month ago that Cohen had “arranged” the payout in exchange for Daniels’s silence about her purported affair with Trump.

In a statement to the Times, Cohen strongly denied that the money came from the Trump Organization or the Trump campaign, while strongly hinting that he paid Daniels out of his own pocket: “Neither the Trump Organization nor the Trump campaign was a party to the transaction with Ms. Clifford, and neither reimbursed me for the payment, either directly or indirectly,” Cohen said. “The payment to Ms. Clifford was lawful, and was not a campaign contribution or a campaign expenditure by anyone.” Cohen declined to tell the Times “whether Mr. Trump had been aware that Mr. Cohen made the payment, why he made the payment or whether he had made similar payments to other people over the years.”

Responding to a complaint that alleged Trump used campaign funds to pay Daniels, Cohen was adamant in his denial. “The complaint alleges that I somehow violated campaign finance laws by facilitating an excess, in-kind contribution,” Mr. Cohen said in his statement. “The allegations in the complaint are factually unsupported and without legal merit, and my counsel has submitted a response to the F.E.C.” This, as others have pointed out, is not quite an admission that the money came from Cohen personally. There’s quite a bit of wiggle room in the word “facilitate”—meaning that the money could have come from Trump or another wealthy financial backer.

In his statement to the Times, Cohen is trying to make it clear that he—and Trump, by extension—did not violate campaign finance laws. But his highly ambiguous statement to the Times raises more questions than it answers. Namely, even if the money didn’t come from the Trump campaign directly, Cohen’s actions seem to have been undertaken for the purpose of skirting campaign finance law. In 2011, John Edwards was indicted for soliciting money for the purpose of hiding the identity of his mistress from voters. The situation with Daniels seems similar. Even if campaign money wasn’t directly used, Cohen and Trump could still be in trouble.

February 13, 2018

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New polling suggests that Democrats need a stronger economic message.

A new poll produced by Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC, reveals that Donald Trump’s standing is beginning to rise. That could spell trouble for Democrats, McClatchy reports:

According to internal polling by the super PAC, President Trump’s approval rating climbed to 44 percent in the first week of February, compared to 53 percent who disapprove. That mirrors Trump’s improving position in public polls.

In November, the same survey found his approval rating at 40 percent, with 54 percent disapproving. The group’s survey also showed the Democratic Party’s generic ballot advantage had shrunk, with 46 percent preferring Democrats to 42 percent for Republicans.

The same report identifies the reason for Trump’s relative success: Democrats started focusing less attention on health care and the economy. It also recommended a shift in party priorities ahead of the all-important midterm elections. That shouldn’t be difficult for a progressive party—yet Democrats often don’t seem to know who they are or who they represent. They still aren’t united on single-payer health care, or on any other kind of health care reform. Senate Democrats signed a spending agreement with Republicans without ensuring protections for Dreamers. Democrats like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Alabama’s Doug Jones frequently vote in line with the Trump administration. The party’s overarching failure to decide on an economic message doesn’t just hurt their chances against the GOP; it also betrays their vulnerable base. Their only path to viability is to repeatedly draw the starkest possible distinctions between their policies and the policies of Donald Trump.

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The White House’s Rob Porter problem is only getting worse.

In the wake of reporting that revealed that former White House staff secretary Rob Porter had been accused of abusing two ex-wives and a girlfriend, the Trump administration has insisted that it acted quickly to remove Porter. Chief of Staff John Kelly, who has received the brunt of criticism for failing to take the allegations against Porter seriously, told staff that Porter “was gone 40 minutes” after Kelly learned of the extent of his abuse. But there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that the White House’s timeline of events is inaccurate.

On Tuesday, Politico reported that White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders organized an off-the-record briefing with Porter and four reporters from The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and Axios in the hours after The Daily Mail published photographs of one of Porter’s ex-wives with a black eye. While it’s unclear if Kelly was aware of the briefing, it clearly contradicts the White House’s primary claim, which is that Porter was removed immediately after evidence of his abuse surfaced. Instead, it now seems clear that the Trump administration was still working to protect Porter even after The Daily Mail published its story.

Kelly reportedly informed President Donald Trump that he would be willing to resign last week, and is, in Politico’s words, “increasingly isolated” in the West Wing. The Porter story has undermined his credibility and his reputation as someone who could impose order on the chaotic White House. But, as the Politico story shows, the rot extends beyond Kelly. The chief of staff may take the fall, but the entire White House shares responsibility for its failure to take action against Porter.

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The White House believes poor people don’t deserve to choose what they eat.

Trump’s budget, released on Monday, proposes drastic cuts to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program in addition to a change in the way food aid is delivered to low-income families. The administration’s innovation: Blue Apron, but for poor people.

“What we do is propose that for folks who are on food stamps, part—not all, part—of their benefits come in the actual sort of, and I don’t want to steal somebody’s copyright, but a Blue Apron-type program where you actually receive the food instead of receive the cash,” said Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget. “It lowers the cost to us because we can buy [at wholesale prices] whereas they have to buy it at retail. It also makes sure they’re getting nutritious food. So we’re pretty excited about that.”

Blue Apron, as The Washington Post points out, costs about $10 per serving, while food stamps provide roughly $1.37 in food per person. Blue Apron also allows customers to choose their meals for the week; the American poor, however, will not enjoy such liberties. Though there are already restrictions on how food stamps may be used, the so-called America’s Harvest Box represents a significantly more restrictive approach to food aid. The SNAP boxes would contain peanut butter, shelf-stable milk, juice, grains, cereals, pasta, and canned beans and meat. No word on what SNAP recipients should do if they have dietary restrictions for medical reasons, or if they keep a religious diet. The boxes also will not contain any fresh fruit or vegetables.

But the White House is less concerned with nutrition than saving money—and in the process, they’ve revealed the truth behind Republican rhetoric about choice and personal liberty. On food stamps, two conservative beliefs combine: The first is that the average poor person is poor because they don’t work, and the second is that personal liberty is a privilege. The America’s Harvest Box proposal implies that SNAP recipients haven’t earned the right to choose their own meals. Talk about a nanny state.